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Book Reviews

The Game of a Lifetime

by Harvey Penick with Bud Shrake, read by Jack Whitaker

For All Who Love the Game: Lessons and Teachings for Women

by Harvey Penick with Bud Shrake, read by Jack Whitaker

Putting Out of Your Mind

by Bob Rotella, read by the author

Advanced Golf

by Greg Norman

If the trend analyzers and marketing gurus are correct, the game of golf is starting an enormous worldwide growth surge. New golf courses are opening faster than the old ones can be converted into housing tracts.

Golf is a strange, idiosyncratic sport that often defies logic. It is a complex game despite being one of the very few where the player is required to hit a stationary ball. It is played by a zealous (perhaps fanatical) minority of the population, yet commands prime television time each weekend. Around the globe, new players (mostly young people) are taking up golf at an unprecedented rate – despite its expense, difficulty, and protracted nature – and billions of dollars are spent annually on fees, clothes, equipment, and other golf-related expenses.

From its earliest days golf has enjoyed the distinction of being the sport with (by far) the largest literature, and the seemingly natural affinity between books and golfers is related to a need to fill the awful void players feel when they are unable to walk the course. Each year huge numbers of lavishly illustrated magazines are joined on store shelves by material dealing with technique, inspiration, biography, fiction, anecdotes, course descriptions, and statistics. Here are some recent contenders.

I Know Absolutely Nothing About Golf by Steve Eubanks and Whitney Crouse is designed as a primer for the complete neophyte who needs an instant introduction to the game and its culture. Presented in the form of a cautionary tale, it features a young woman business owner who feels her company and career could benefit from the anticipated networking opportunities to be found on the links. Her interviews with fictional golf course employees provide her, and the reader, with enough of an introduction to the basic terminology, history, etiquette, rules, and background to the game to provide a minimum comfort level and leave her embarrassment free. The authors have done an excellent job of distilling vast amounts of data into a compact and comprehensible package supported by line drawings and a glossary. This is not the way I would like to learn golf, but it may work for some people.

The Golf Doctor is a compilation of advice and commentary drawn from Bill Mallon’s regular column in Golf Digest magazine. Mallon, an orthopedic surgeon and former pro golfer, explains the causes and prevention of most common golf maladies (back and joint problems) caused by the body’s attempts to cope with the unnatural complexities of the golf swing. He also covers the benefits of proper exercise, equipment, and preparation as well as the special needs of aging players, people with diabetes, cardiac patients, and those susceptible to sun and insects. It is an informative and readable guide to good health on the links.

One of the hazards faced by all golfers is where to store or dispose of awful golf gifts such as golf ball soap-on-a-rope, calendars featuring joke holes on icebergs, and cute club covers. The latest addition to this unwelcome and kitschy merchandise designed for gullible gift-buyers is Fore!: More Great Moments & Dubious Achievements in Golf History, a golf-ball-shaped book of useless data guaranteed to make any discerning golfer cringe.

This year, instructional material once again looms large – a testament to every golfer’s expectation that he or she can somehow acquire the key thought that will enable mastery of the golf swing and the vicissitudes of terrain, weather, and temperament. One cynic, or perhaps pragmatist, likened golf instruction to second marriages – the triumph of optimism over experience.

Audiobooks may provide diversion during those trips to the golf course, and the cassette adaptations of Harvey Penick’s popular series fit the bill quite well. The episodic style of presentation, which makes the original books difficult for sustained reading, is ideal for the audio format. Those familiar with Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book will be aware of the eclectic mix of anecdote, homily, epithet, and parable spun by the aging golf teacher and his ghost writer. The short tales, always warm and comfortable (if sometimes verging on the irritatingly trite or cloyingly gnomic), take on a strange soporific character when intoned by the syrupy voice of Jack Whitaker, a veteran television commentator known for his verbosity during major tournaments.

Penick was around the game for so long as a player, club pro, teacher, and guru/personality that he met most of the major figures in American golf, plus the non-professional players from peasants to presidents who provide the financial and fan support that prop up the professional game. From his base in Texas, Penick became the mentor of many tour players and, in his 80s, a marketable personality. He may have used most of his best stuff in the Little Red Book, but he managed to find a few more entertaining epithets and tantalizing nuggets, which are tucked into the padding of the succeeding books and tapes: And If You Play Golf, You’re My Friend and The Game of a Lifetime. The last of the series, For All Who Love the Game, is his tribute to women in golf and their particular needs.

The award for most improbable tape of the year must go to Putting Out of Your Mind by self-styled “performance consultant” and sports psychologist Bob Rotella. While it is difficult to argue with the author’s tips and techniques for improved visualization and attitude, their usefulness without visual support is debatable. The last straw is that Rotella narrates the tape himself. His stilted delivery and dreadfully misplaced pauses make the narrative a jerky nightmare, even to those who overlook his inability to distinguish between adjectives and adverbs.

The most stylish of recent instruction books is Advanced Golf by Greg Norman, a well-written and superbly illustrated account of how the charismatic Australian delivers his highly tuned game. Starting with grip and stance, working his way through each club in the bag, and finishing with several chapters on strategy and course management techniques, Norman shares his thoughts, techniques, and rituals as he launches his daily assaults on the golf course. Few readers will ever approach Norman’s grasp of the game, but this book contains all the elements required to keep the dream alive, at least until the golf courses reopen this spring.